Going from where the foot is to where the ball has gone

Sometime in the 1980s, Barry Richards claimed that cricket technique had changed. The purists were appalled. Technique cannot change, they said. The forward defence, the square cut, the cover drive — all these needed to be played in the specified manner.

It showed either a misunderstanding of the word “technique” or a lack of appreciation of the purpose of the game which was to score runs, take wickets and finally, to win. It was, of course, cricket’s conceit that it is better to play the ideal shot that fetches no runs than to step out of the line and be effective rather than picture-perfect. Richards made his comment when the One-Day International was changing the approach to technique much in the way T20 is doing today.

Batsmen worked out early in T20 that it was necessary sometimes to get the front foot away from the line of the delivery and swing through. The coaching manual had, for decades, instructed batsmen to get to the pitch of the ball. So, has technique changed?

Golf apart, cricket is the one sport where a player can succumb to paralysis by analysis. “See where your foot is,” a coach is said to have admonished the great West Indian allrounder Learie Constantine when young. “Ah!”, replied the player, “But see where the ball is.”

The biggest change in the game in recent years has been the shift in focus from where the foot is to where the ball has gone. “Technique” is merely the way of carrying out a particular task (Oxford dictionary), or a way of doing an activity that requires skill (Cambridge).

Some achieve great effects through textbook technique — the Tendulkars, the Gavaskars, the Richardses (both Barry and Viv) — while others play beyond such technique but are still effective. Players in this category would include Kevin Pietersen, Brian Lara, Ian Botham. Not that these players throw away the textbook altogether, but they innovate, they create strokes spontaneously.

There are any number of books on how to play cricket — from Don Bradman’s masterpiece to the MCC Coaching Manual — but fewer on how to watch cricket. In the book of that name by John Arlott, originally written in the 1940s and updated in the 1980s, the author says, “The point of watching cricket is pleasure.” This is forgotten so often that it is not surprising Arlott had to make a point of it.

Adherence to technique is as capable of providing pleasure as arrant disregard for it. The backfoot defence off a fast bowler played correctly is as pleasing to the knowledgeable as the hoick into the stands is to the T20 audience. Many spectators enjoy both in their respective contexts.

Thrilling sight

I remember the great Gavaskar in a Test match going up to his full height and dropping a snorter from fast bowler Imran Khan dead at his feet. It was as thrilling a sight as you would wish to see on a cricket field. I suspect that in some cricket watchers there is both the Test match fan and the T20 fan existing simultaneously.

In the limited sense of accomplishing something with skill, technique, by definition, has to change with the evolution of the game. In the 19th century, the batsman hit the off-side deliveries to the off. And then came W.G. Grace with his backfoot play and ability to pull the ball, Ranji and the leg glance, and technique changed.

On uncovered wickets, you needed a particular technique to play the spinner. Later, wickets everywhere were covered, and that skill was no longer needed. The arrival of the shorter formats meant that the product was more important than the process — an edge for four was preferable to a forward defensive stroke that fetched no runs — and the bat in dead defence almost disappeared.

Better equipment now means that some of the coaching manual’s “must-do” instructions have changed to “do if possible” or even “don’t do if it makes no difference”. Some years ago at the CC Morris Cricket Library in Philadelphia, I was allowed to handle a bat used by Don Bradman. My respect for the player shot up even more, for it looked so weak and helpless that even the bats young children play at home with appeared solid and threatening in comparison.

Today’s bats may weigh the same as Bradman’s, but in every other respect is a world apart. When even a mis-hit can carry for six, then what price technique?

In the sense that purists probably saw the word, it meant the “correct way” to play a shot, or even the “best way” or the “most efficient way”. The word does contain some or all of these meanings.

But — and this is the modern acknowledgement — there is more than one way to skin a cat. Technique is the grammar of the game which the player uses to construct its poetry or deathless prose. And just as new words and usages modify language, so do new skills and usages alter technique.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 8:02:16 PM |

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